5 Ways to Stop Anxiety Before It Stops You
Become your own cheerleader, and change your story.
Posted Apr 21, 2015
Does anxiety lead you to hesitate and second-guess yourself? When you think of starting a new project or going into a group situation with people you don’t know, do you feel butterflies in your stomach or a sense of dread? Do you come up with lots of reasons not to do a potentially fun or profitable activity that has some degree of risk, like joining a hiking club or volunteer group, trying to get fit, starting a blog, or turning your hobby into a small business? Do you do tons of research but then not take the next step to turn your ideas into action?
If this describes you, anxiety and excessive caution may be getting in your way, stopping you from going after your dreams and living a more meaningful and fulfilling life. Avoidance feeds on itself and makes you less confident, while getting started and taking action creates a positive cycle that naturally helps your anxiety go down.
But where do you begin? These five strategies provide a roadmap for moving forward and taking the first step towards the life you long for.
1. Don’t wait for your anxiety to fade.
Your anxiety is likely wired in as part of your temperament and won’t just vanish on its own. Our brains are hard-wired not to like uncertainty, unpredictability, and change—and some of us are just anxiety-prone by nature. However, when you take action towards your goals despite your anxiety—and then actually survive the experience—your brain begins to label uncertainty as less dangerous. Over time, you build a sense of self-efficacy—you begin to see yourself as someone who can take action and be successful even when you're feeling anxious.
2. Set a realistic goal.
We don’t all want (or need) to be lawyers, or to have hundreds of friends, or run marathons, be super-skinny, or live in a mansion. Anxiety makes you see yourself as less talented, lovable or competent than others. But when you think of moving forward, if you don’t really know yourself, you may set a goal to be just like a friend or neighbor—to do what appears socially acceptable or what it seems others expect of you. It’s hard to remain committed and follow through on difficult long-term goals, especially if you’re not really passionate about the activity. Rather than thinking about what you "should" be doing, take a look inside and ask yourself what you really want. Perhaps you are a creative person, or want to travel, have life balance, live healthier, or find a caring partner. Whatever it is, figure out the easiest thing you can do to get started. Phrase your goal specifically: I'll walk for 20 minutes three times next week. You can’t climb a mountain all at once and you’re more likely to achieve your goal with intrinsic (coming from the inside) motivation than when you’re just trying to please others.
3. Trust the process.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you can't see the whole staircase.” But even if you don’t have faith to begin with, faith will come if you just take that first step. The more you take action, the more likely you are to have some success and begin to trust yourself, the process, and the universe. I often start writing a blog post not knowing exactly what I’m going to say. I’ve learned that if I have a genuine intention to help readers and a message to share, then the content will emerge. As many writers will tell you, if you just start writing, the ideas will form and your “masterpiece” will take shape over time as anxiety diminishes and you’re left with your story to tell or your genuine passion for the ideas you want to express. The same applies to other aspects of life—starting a new job, launching a project, seeking a relationship, etc.
4. Curb the catastrophizing.
Anxious people tend to focus on what could go wrong and on how bad it would be if they took a risk and got a negative outcome. What if you went on a date and the person turned out to be a jerk—or they were great, but they never called you back? What if you invested in a new business and it didn’t work out, or if you applied for a job and didn’t get it? What if you changed jobs because you were miserable and found yourself in a worse situation? While you wouldn’t want these outcomes, how bad are they really? Couldn't you survive them? Do you have coping skills you could draw on, or could you just try again and take a different approach next time? I'll bet you could. Anxiety makes you overestimate the risks of taking action, but what are the risks of staying stuck in a bad situation? You could eventually regret even more not even trying to go after a dream.
5. Be your own cheerleader, not your critic.
Going after your dreams is tough and you will inevitably face obstacles and failures along the way. But you don’t need to make these barriers worse by beating up on yourself every time you try something that doesn’t turn out perfectly. Many of life’s important outcomes have an element of luck or uncertainty. We can control what we do, but we can’t control market forces or what other people decide. You may speak up for yourself and get criticism and pushback, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you've done something wrong. Our brains naturally go to the negative because they are protection-focused, rather than promotion-focused. To overcome this bias, you need to deliberately focus on the positives in a situation. Honor yourself for taking a risk, leaning into your discomfort, or just showing up when you really wanted to curl up on the couch at home. You can’t control the outcomes, so praise yourself for putting in the effort and you’ll continue to stay motivated!
Getting rid of your anxiety is likely impossible, but you can choose to move ahead and take constructive action despite your anxiety, building resilience and self-confidence along the way, and opening up new possibilities for a productive and meaningful life. It isn’t easy, but it is definitely worth the effort.
I recommend The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points (Perigee) by my Psychology Today colleague Alice Boyes.
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